Category Archives: Austria-Hungary

9 JUNE, 1915: How Bad Can It Be?

Hindsight, the historian’s friend, tells me I’ve been sloppy about Italy in 1915.  On one hand, when discussing Italy’s passage from essentially pro-German neutrality to war against Austria-Hungary, I don’t think I made clear quite what a socioeconomic mess the country had become since the end of its war with Turkey in 1912. In 1915 the country was suffering supply shortages of everything from food to raw materials, beset by strikes and civil unrest, and experiencing falling living standards, particularly in the south and among the urban poor.

On the other hand, while stressing the loud enthusiasm for war of much Italian political and popular opinion, I didn’t give enough space to those opposed to it. Pacifist deputies had brought down the government in May, only to be overwhelmed by royal intervention, and once war had been declared opposition gathered around the Pope and a small but noisy group of socialist deputies in the Italian parliament.

Both points are worth making in the context of what was portrayed, a hundred years ago today, as Italy’s first important victory against Austro-Hungarian positions on its northeastern frontier – the capture of Monfalcone, a port near the mouth of the River Isonzo. The event’s apparent importance was propaganda nonsense, because the ‘victory’ had been a mere occupation, after the small Austrian garrison left to watch over the town had withdrawn in good order, and the small advance involved couldn’t be exploited further against more serious Austrian defences. Monfalcone was nevertheless a glimpse of things to come on the First World War’s latest battlefront, and an early indication that it would become yet another ghastly stalemate.

Let’s start with the basics. Italy went to war against Austria-Hungary (and not, at this stage, Germany) for the ‘lost provinces’ east of Venice that were then under Vienna’s control and are now part of Slovenia. Nothing much else interested the Italian government or people, and Anglo-French appeals for Italian help at Gallipoli and elsewhere fell on deaf ears. The Italian high command’s sole focus in June 1915 was its Treaty of London promise to launch an attack across the frontier with Austria-Hungary as soon as possible. Planning for the offensive was well underway by early June, and was conducted in a spirit of optimism that, even by the self-delusional standards of 1915, bordered on the criminal.

On the plus side for Italy, Austro-Hungarian forces were along the frontier were outnumbered, and commitments on the Eastern and Balkan Fronts meant they were likely to stay that way. Everything else was on the minus side.

First, the frontier between Italy and Austria ran through the southern Alps, linking a series of inhospitable mountain passes and offering only two areas for large-scale military activity: in the Trentino region, where the frontier bulged south into flatter territory; and along the River Isonzo, where relatively open coastal areas led on to the lost provinces. An attack in either area called for a lot of complicated and slow-burning mountain warfare, but the Trentino was the more suited to mass infantry operations. Italian Chief of Staff Cadorna, sufficiently worried by pacifist opposition to keep his plans secret from politicians and public, plumped for the tougher Isonzo option in the hope of securing the optimists’ Holy Grail, aka the port of Trieste.

In case that hurt, here’s a map, nicked off the net and removed at the drop of a complaint.

BB97Y7 The three theatres of war on the Austro Italian Frontier 1915.  1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps.  3.  Isonzo Front.

Secondly, even if the high command had chosen the more practicable route of attack, the Italian economy and military were in no fit state to carry it out. Cadorna could raise men, and he was good at rapid concentration of large forces, but the Army was desperately short of food, uniforms, ammunition, modern rifles and machine-guns.  While defenders were equipped with plenty of modern artillery from Austria-Hungary’s well-developed arms industry, Italian attackers could muster a total of 700 artillery pieces, most of them antiquated relics from nineteenth-century wars. Italian air power was poorly developed, so that only its innovative Caproni heavy bomber was really fit for service in 1915, and though the well-equipped Italian Navy was modern and expensive, it never took more than a passive support role, harassing enemy supply lines and monitoring its Austrian counterpart in the Adriatic.

Finally, while the Austrian high command was content to defend the line against Italy until reinforcement was possible or German forces joined the battle, Cadorna was running on optimism, and his logistic capabilities were not matched by strategic or tactical gifts. Having a promised a quick attack, and despite the tactical warning posted when Italian troops tried and failed to move forward from Monfalcone, he prepared to confront well-equipped, dug in defenders on high ground with a half-baked version of the anyway disastrous ‘breakthrough’ tactics preferred by Joffre in France. Massed, concentrated infantry would assault Austrian positions on the Isonzo, but they’d have to do it without the benefit of an artillery bombardment.

With commendable dispatch, Cadorna would be ready to launch his attack on 23 June. It would fail, as would ten more offensives at the Isonzo before the autumn of 1917, when an Austro-German counterattack forced a temporary Italian collapse. Elsewhere the frontier soon settled into the pattern of stagnant, claustrophobic trench warfare already established on the Western and Gallipoli Fronts, punctuated in 1916 by a single, limited Austrian offensive in the Trentino.

In the end, a battlefront that was ill-suited to decisive military success, contested by one empire being bled to death on other fronts and one young nation that was economically, socially and psychologically ill-equipped for the fight, would cost both sides hundreds of thousands of men and do both a lot more harm than good. The fight was part of the process that killed off the Austrian Empire, and though Austrian disintegration eventually enabled Italy to seize the territories it craved, the country had by then been dragged to a level of civilian hardship, social unrest, regional separatism and political instability that left the door wide open for Mussolini’s tabloid solutions.

By way of justifying the existence of this catastrophic episode, it is often claimed that the campaign in Italy helped Britain and France by distracting enemy resources from the Western Front. Even that apology for an excuse doesn’t hold much water, given that Austria barely contributed to the war in France, that Germany didn’t commit troops to Italy until 1917 and that the War in the west went on for another three and a half years after the first Italian offensive. Whichever way look at it, the Italian Front was just one bad idea after another.

4 JUNE, 1915: This Time! Definitely.

The landscape of Eastern Europe is peppered with monuments and memorials that come as a surprise to many an educated Briton at large in Poland or Belarus, the Ukraine or Lithuania. These are not monuments to the vast battles and bloodletting of the Second World War, or even to the hubris of Napoleon, but to the sweeping, empty carnage of the First World War’s Eastern Front, a struggle largely ignored by Western historians and forgotten by the heritage industry.  A hundred years on from the day the Central Powers retook the symbolically significant fortress of Przemysl, which had fallen to the Russians in the autumn, the Eastern Front merits some attention.

The Eastern Front is generally described as another of the War’s great stalemates, and until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 it was. Unlike the death-grip immobility of the fronts in France, Gallipoli and Italy, the stalemate in the east was conducted over vast, often empty areas, so that armies could and did advance hundreds of kilometres without disturbing the overall strategic status quo.

All through the autumn of 1914 and the following spring, land had been won and lost all along the front, from the Baltic coast to the Black Sea. Long, long supply lines, the military inefficiency of Austrian and Russian forces, commitment of the best German forces to the Western Front, the difficulty of sustaining advanced forces in inhospitable, often baked or frozen wilderness – all these factors and more made every victory temporary, and every defeat reversible once a defensive line had been established. Hundreds of thousands had been killed in the process in conditions that made the Western Front seem, if not benign, at least somewhere soldiers didn’t expect to starve or freeze to death.

In 1915, that year of unfounded optimism, the east’s stalemate of movement offered a mirage of total victory even more seductive than breakthrough in the West or backdoor triumph through a sideshow. Nothing so coherent as focused strategic optimism was coming out of Russia’s chaotic and fractious high command, Stavka, but in Conrad, the blinkered eminence of Vienna’s war effort, and Ludendorff, the influential egotist in charge of Germany’s eastern operations, the Central Powers were saddled with two of the War’s most dangerous dreamers.

The fall of Przemysl was a highlight of the German and Austrian clean-up operation after the spring’s highly successful but strategically irrelevant Gorlice-Tarnow offensive. By the end of the month the Central Powers had occupied all of Galicia, and operations paused for another round of fantasist lobbying by Conrad and Ludendorff. Their argument was, as ever, that if German chief of staff Falkenhayn would give priority to the east, Russia could be knocked out of the war with one great blow. Falkenhayn, caught between the seductive propaganda of his most apparently successful general and the need to stay strong in the west, once again refused the great gamble, and instead opted for a limited July offensive designed to pinch out the great bulge in the front line that was the Polish heartland.

To be fair to Ludendorff and Conrad – both high on my list of the Twentieth Century’s relatively unsung villains – the Russians looked ripe for the beating in June 1915. Having hemorrhaged men all spring, Russian forces were scattered along the front in shallow trenches, desperately short of equipment, training and competent commanders. Russia’s Entente allies were very afraid that a second enemy offensive, swiftly delivered, would force the Tsar into a separate peace with Germany, a fear that added urgency to their own efforts to achieve breakthrough in France.

So optimism about the attacker’s chances reigned supreme into the summer of 1915. The fact that Russian armies could triumph after retreating a very long way for a very long time had been well established since Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, and nothing about the Tsar’s regime suggested that the loss of a few hundred thousand subjects was likely to alter its strategic priorities – but as preparations for what would be called the Triple Offensive got underway the world at large held its breath in anticipation of news from a front that seemed on the point of decisive denouement.

25 MAY, 1915: First Casualty In Ritual Killing Shock!

Britain’s national press hasn’t changed all that much over the last hundred years. The culture of public expression it feeds has evolved into something altogether less restrained, so the newspapers of 1915 were required to maintain an appearance of sobriety and reasonableness that makes them look dull and academic to the modern eye, but they were nonetheless inaccurate, self-important, propagandist and sensationalist – just the way we like them today.

A century ago today, the British daily press was on typical form. The most deadly rail crash in British history had taken place on 22 May, when a total of three passenger and two goods trains were involved in two collisions at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, that culminated in a major fire. Most of the estimated 226 dead and a similar number of injured were Territorial troops on their way to Gallipoli, but the loss of regimental records in the fire meant that exact numbers were never established.

While the cause of the disaster was still being investigated (and would later be established as signalling error), it provided the newspapers with relatively little opportunity to produce propaganda or peddle political influence, so it had already been pushed into the background by a raft of more lively stories.

The ongoing battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, neither proceeding remotely according to plan for the British, couldn’t be ignored and occupied a lot of column inches, most dedicated to looking on the bright side. Small victories and optimistic forecasts dominated coverage, along with reports of individual or collective bravery by British and colonial troops. This was simple propaganda for the sake of home front morale, and the disasters it masked encouraged newspaper editors and owners to play down military news in favour of more positive stories from the War’s peripheries. By 25 May they had two corkers to work with.

Italy had formally entered the War on 23 May, and two days later the British press was still in a ferment of triumphalism, lionising the Italian government and people as selfless defenders of civilisation and confidently predicting the imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary’s war effort.  Better yet, May 25 found British politics in the midst of a momentous upheaval that had been promoted and at least partly created by the national press, as Prime Minister Asquith completed negotiations to form a coalition government in place of his Liberal administration. Part of the political and strategic agenda pushed by the two most powerful press barons of the day – Lord Northcliffe and his brother Viscount Rothermere – the appointment of a new cabinet, along with optimistic predictions of its success and speculation about the few posts still unoccupied, pushed even the glories of Italy into second place when it came to column inches.

I mention the press that day because the way in which the First World War shaped a century of propaganda is often overlooked by a modern world steeped in its dark arts.

Propaganda wasn’t new in 1914, and was in no way a peculiarly British phenomenon. Every imperial state in the world, and for that matter any state with a literate population, had long been using every medium available to shape opinion by information design. Books, periodicals, poems, leaflets, paintings, monumental sculpture, posters, oratory and photographs, as well as the press, were all familiar tools used to influence popular opinion. Their use by governments and private interests proliferated during the immediate pre-War years, as burgeoning mass literacy was matched by mounting diplomatic tension in western and central Europe – and from the moment general war broke out in 1914, it was accompanied by a chorus of propaganda on an unprecedented scale.

All of the main belligerent states, especially the most economically developed among them, launched ambitious public information programmes as soon as war was declared, using every medium available to contemporary culture and technology. Within weeks, a pattern for wartime state propaganda was set by the British, French and German governments, which recruited eminent cultural figures from every field of the arts and (particularly in Germany’s case) the sciences to produce propaganda material. As anyone alive today should already be aware, the idea caught on, and was used with particular effect in the United States, both before and after its declarations of war in 1917.

From a racing start in 1914, the scale and importance of wartime propaganda just kept on growing. By the end of the War most belligerents sported huge, centralised information ministries that controlled propaganda for home, enemy and neutral audiences. These were responsible for everything from promotion of recruitment or funding drives, through the plausible nonsense that constituted what British authorities liked to call ‘propaganda of truth’ (i.e. leaving out all the bad news), to the ‘black’ propaganda designed to deceive or more often discredit the enemy with lies.

There’s a lot more to be said about the many forms of propaganda employed during the Great War, and about the systems and orthodoxies it spawned, but not here. This is just a reminder that Britain was, and presumably still is no better or worse than its peers among developed states in the matter of propaganda – and that propaganda did not, as heritage world might have you believe, begin with Goebbels. Like so much of our social architecture, it became what it is today during the First World War.

2 MAY, 1915: This Cannot Be Happening…

Thanks to extraordinary military conditions, underpinned by equally unprecedented social, economic and political upheavals, a war that couldn’t possibly last for more than a few weeks was still raging out of control nine months later.  It seemed reasonable to assume – no, it was reasonable to assume that it couldn’t last much longer, so when the main belligerents contemplated their big moves in spring 1915 they did so in a spirit of military optimism.  Whether pouring resources into existing fronts, widening their military horizons to take in less direct routes to victory or experimenting with new weapons and tactics, strategists everywhere operated in the understandable belief that one big push in the right place must bring an end to the War’s unnatural life, and planned accordingly.

A quick tour d’horizon should illustrate the point.

Let’s start with the exception to the rule, Serbia, which had survived three invasions in 1914 but had been completely exhausted by the effort, and was still deep in the process of licking its wounds and reorganising what was left of its army.  Quite incapable of any aggression and surrounded by enemies intent on its demise, Serbia was focused only on survival.

Serbia’s most powerful enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wasn’t really focused at all.  Struggling to replace huge manpower losses during unsuccessful campaigns on two fronts, and facing a third on its Italian frontiers, the Empire was showing ominous signs of internal collapse.  As well as rising nationalist discontent among subject populations, especially Czechs and Slovaks, shambolic infrastructural management and Hungarian reluctance to share food supplies had left Vienna close to starvation.  Increasingly reliant on Germany to shore up its military position, and required to focus economic effort on its well-developed arms industry in accordance with German needs, the Austrian high command was nevertheless ignoring reality in favour of what might be called endgame optimism.  Having just abandoned a disastrous offensive in the Carpathian Mountains on the Eastern Front, Vienna was planning towards a renewed invasion of Serbia and offering support for further German offensives in the east.

At least Vienna planned to stick on good defensive positions against the Italians in the Alps. Italy, on the other hand, was preparing to ignore the depleted condition of its armed forces (after a war with the Ottoman Empire in 1911–12), its desperate wartime supply shortages of everything from ammunition to food, and the tactical realities of alpine warfare to launch attack after costly attack on those positions. The Ottoman Empire, under attack in modern Iraq, at Gallipoli and in the Caucasus, was meanwhile facing internal breakdown of supplies and sliding into dependence on German aid, but was planning a new offensive in the Causasus and further attacks on depleted British positions around Suez.

A similar disdain for reality infected planners in St. Petersburg. Having held off the Austrian spring offensive in the Carpathians and Turkish attacks in the Caucasus, they could call on all the manpower they needed but precious little else, not least because Russia possessed none of the state mechanisms that enabled its western allies to wage ‘total war’.   Designed by a general staff (Stavka) specialised in factional squabbling, Russian strategy in spring 1915 lacked coherence, took a very long time to get from drawing board to action, and ignored any lessons from recent failures.  The result was scattergun optimism, with massed offensives planned for both the northern and southern sectors of the Eastern Front.  Forces were being slowly built up for these as May got underway, a process that depleted defences in the centre of the front and weakened Russian armies in the Caucasus, where the need for a defensive posture, though unavoidable in the short term, was seen as no more than a temporary delay on the road to Constantinople and the Mediterranean.

You couldn’t accuse the French war effort of lacking focus in 1915. A single-minded national commitment to victory on the Western Front was backed by an economy capable of delivering total war (at least for the time being), and fuelled by the conviction that enough firepower, properly concentrated and deployed with sufficient offensive spirit, would soon drive the enemy from the gates. This had been the basis of all French military thinking since the autumn of 1914, and nothing had changed by the following spring, so C-in-C Joffre and his staff were simply planning bigger, more concentrated and more dashing attacks all along the front line until the predicted ‘breakthrough’ came to pass.

The British believed in breakthrough and, despite minor tactical differences, were following the French lead on the Western Front, but Britain controlled enough resources to indulge in plenty of aggressive optimism elsewhere. While men and materiel were still being poured into France, the Royal Navy was pursuing victory through blockade, an ill-conceived, under-resourced and ill-led attempt at decisive intervention was stuttering towards disaster at Gallipoli, and British Indian forces in Mesopotamia were advancing into serious trouble on the long road to Baghdad.  All these, along with a fistful of minor campaigns all over the Empire, combined to disperse and dilute the British war effort, and none of them came close to unlocking the stalemate in 1915, but within twelve months the British would be at it again in Salonika and Palestine

Like most other belligerents, even Austria-Hungary, the British had a choice about dividing their resources, but Germany was stuck with it.  Both its principal allies were in constant and growing need of economic, military and technical support, and it faced enormous demand for resources in both the War’s principal theatres.  The spring season of 1915 presented the High Command with a genuine dilemma: should Germany seek all-out victory on the Western Front and merely hold its own on the Eastern Front, or vice versa?  Chief of staff Falkenhayn wanted to concentrate on the west, but the need to support Austria and Turkey on other fronts, along with the combination of extravagant promises and relentless propaganda coming from the Eastern Front command team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, persuaded him to take the less expensive option, a major offensive against depleted Russian defences along the central sector of the Eastern Front.

Eight German divisions were moved east from France and two were transferred south from the Carpathians.  Equipped to western Front standards, they became the Eleventh Army under General Mackensen.  Supported by eight Austro-Hungarian divisions, and preceded by a four-hour artillery bombardment far bigger than anything yet seen in the east, they attacked along the Gorlice-Tarnow sector of the front on 2 May.  Russian defenders, outnumbered six to one, desperately short of even the most basic equipment and denied reinforcements while offensives were prepared elsewhere, simply ran away.  By 10 May a chaotic Russian retreat, punctuated by feeble counterattacks, had fallen back to the River San with losses of more than 200,000 men, almost three-quarters of them as prisoners, and by early June the central section of the Russian line was retreating towards Lvov.  The offensive eventually halted to consider future strategy in the last week of June, by which time Austro-German forces had occupied all of Galicia, crossed the River Dneister, taken almost a quarter of a million prisoners and captured 224 big guns for a total loss of 90,000 men.

Gorlice-Tarnow was a German victory, no doubt about that, and on a scale that very nearly matched Ludendorff’s sales pitch, but it completely failed to achieve the prime objective of every major offensive conceived and carried out that spring because it didn’t end, shrink or even noticeably shorten the War.  Russia wasn’t knocked out of the fight, the two things it had lost in large measure – men and territory – were the things it could most afford to lose, and the main practical effect of the success was to extend Austro-German supply lines for further operations.

In failing to end the War, much of the season’s military endeavour was ruined by flawed planning, refusal to recognise reality or command incompetence, but even when the optimists of 1915 avoided all those pitfalls – as Gorlice-Tarnow did – their hopes were wrecked by a historical coincidence of military, technological and social conditions that rendered outright victory all but impossible. Deride First World War leaders for their efforts if you will, join me in condemning the egoists and fantasists among them, but they were dealing with a world that defied all contemporary logic in sustaining a conflict it lacked the technology to end.

3 DECEMBER, 1914: Disastrous Victories

The Battle of the Kolubara River began a hundred years ago today, a six-day carnage in northern Serbia that ended the third and final Austro-Hungarian invasion of the country in 1914. So let’s talk about Serbia and its war to date.

Serbia was yet another of Europe’s new countries, having gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Its twentieth-century character had been defined by a coup d’état in 1903, when King Alexander was assassinated and the Karadjordjevic dynasty, in the person of King Peter I, was installed in its place. The King ruled through an appointed cabinet that answered to a National Assembly (Skuptshina) directly elected by all male taxpayers and dominated by moderate liberals.

The regime’s home policies broadly reflected this political preference but its foreign policy, heavily influenced by the military, was aggressively expansionist and committed to the establishment of a pan-Slav state. In practical terms this meant seeking access to the Adriatic through Albania, and control over the rest of what would one day be Yugoslavia through absorption or federation. Tiny, independent Montenegro aside, all these places were controlled by the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires in 1914, and this fact alone pretty much guaranteed diplomatic support for Serbia from Russia.

Russian support had been crucial to Serbian success in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. While St. Petersburg’s guarantees kept other European powers from intervening, Serbia almost doubled it size and raised its population to around 4.5 million. You couldn’t call these secure or stable gains, given that the entire region – including Bulgaria, Greece and Rumania – was soon gearing up for another territorial merry-go-round, but Serbia made an alliance with Greece to counterbalance the threat of Bulgarian dissatisfaction with the 1913 peace, and went right on trying to expand.

A nice, simple regional map of the  Balkan mess in 1914.
A nice, simple regional map of the Balkan mess in 1914.

Belgrade had been encouraging pan-Slav separatist movements in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia since 1903. Both were semi-autonomous states within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until the latter seized full control of Bosnia in 1908, after which rising tension between Vienna and Belgrade found red hot focus in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. By June 1914 Sarajevo was ready to blow, and the assassination of visiting Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, an act so famous you don’t need me to describe it, lit the touch paper.  Some controversy still hangs around the question of whether or not the Serbian government planned the killing. It didn’t, as evidenced by its desperate attempt to stave off war in answering Vienna’s subsequent ultimatum, but the Black Hand did.

The Black Hand was a hard-line nationalist organisation with strong military links and fingers in every other important Serbian pie, essentially a state within a state. It had engineered a political crisis that forced King Peter to pass executive power to his son, Alexander, on 14 June, and an election to legitimise the change was underway when the Archduke died. The killing was in line with Black Hand ambitions to goad Vienna into an aggressive act that would bring Russia to war, allowing Serbia to profit from a wider conflict’s fallout, and this pragmatic policy reflected the basic fact that Serbia couldn’t hope to win a war against an industrial power.

An overwhelmingly rural society, landlocked and essentially tribal in its outlying regions, Serbia possessed few mineral or other industrial resources.  A mere 10,000 Serbs were engaged in industrial manufacture, almost all of them in Belgrade (itself a primitive backwater compared to major European capitals), and the economy was largely dependent on exports of food and hides to Germany, Austria and Turkey. All Serbia’s fuel, arms and other military necessities were imported overland, using the navigable Danube, poor roads or the country’s only two railway lines, which linked Belgrade with Sofia and Constantinople. Meanwhile its army could muster a maximum of some 350,000 men, most of them ill equipped and overage, and was hardly the instrument to fulfil the leadership’s grandiose ambitions.

So Serbia was relying on outside help, and despite the government’s initial fears the Black Hand felt pretty confident about getting it . Meanwhile the Serbian population, fuelled by years of racially based propaganda (as were Austrians on the other side of the frontier), rushed to battle with the same confident enthusiasm displayed in Berlin, London and Paris when war came at the end of July.  Disaster beckoned.

Help didn’t arrive. As the diplomatic dominoes crumbled and massed armies collided all over Europe, none of Serbia’s allies against the Central Powers could spare the resources to provide significant support, and Serbia (along with Montenegro) was forced to face Austro-Hungarian invasion alone. What followed was a brilliant series of defensive campaigns, under the skilled command of General Putnik and carried out by troops familiar with the mountainous terrain.

By the time he launched a counterattack against Austrian positions at the Kolubara, Putnik had repelled two ineptly executed invasions in August and September, and made a tactical retreat before a third in November, giving up Belgrade to enemy occupation on 2 December.   The counterattack struck at fatigued troops, and after two days of heavy fighting Austrian forces began retreating back towards the frontier. Serbian forces recaptured the nearby town of Valyevo on 6 December, and the invaders re-crossed the frontier at the Drina three days later, at which point Putnik’s exhausted army gave up the pursuit.

Serbian troops crossing the Kolubara River. It took a while.

The third invasion had cost the Austrians more than 225,000 troops, but the drain on victorious Serbian forces was more significant. The country had acted as a nation in arms, sparking reprisals by Austrian occupiers no less gruesome than those inflicted on Belgium by occupying German armies, and losses of some 180,000 men during the year could not be replaced. Still denied any material support by the Allies (although Britain did provide money for the purchase of supplies), the battered, exhausted rump of the Serbian Army could only spend the winter huddled in its fastnesses, desperately short of food, medicines and all other military necessities, while typhus spread through the ranks.

Driven by soaring ambition at the heart of its body politic, Serbia had gambled on war and lost, but seemed to have got away with it at the end of 1914. The year to come would bring a terrible reckoning.

11 SEPTEMBER 1914:  Bad Day for the Bad Guy

These were momentous times on the Western Front a century ago, and there’s no denying that events in France and Belgium were the War’s big stories in mid-September.  The Marne was ending and military focus shifting to the River Aisne as Allied and German forces sought to outflank each other, but Poppycock knows you can get all you need elsewhere about the Battle of the Aisne and the series of similarly inconclusive actions that followed.  Instead, let’s talk about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which officially called off its invasion of Russia on 11 September, and about the man responsible for Vienna’s spectacularly creaky war machine.

Franz, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf, generally known as Conrad, became the Austro-Hungarian Army’s chief of staff and effective commander in 1906.  Apart from a hiatus in 1911–12, he held the job until 1917.  Like any historical event great or small, the First World War emerged from a swathe of interconnected dynamics and circumstances, and no single person or cause can be held responsible for its outbreak – but if you were looking for a single bad guy to blame for the catastrophic collapse of European diplomacy, then Conrad might be your man.

The hawkish epitome of pre-War European militarism, Conrad was convinced that aggressive expansion was the cure for his multiracial Empire’s economic problems and mounting internal tensions.  For years he had argued strongly but in vain for surprise attacks on disputed territories in Italy and Russia, and he was responsible for Vienna’s aggressive response to the Serbian crisis of 1914.  He did everything in his power to ensure Germany’s support for the Austrian invasion across the Danube that followed, and when general war broke out he launched a second invasion, across the Empire’s eastern frontier into Russian Galicia.

Conrad was also a military optimist to the point of fantasy, and as such a byword for folly among contemporary commanders.  He had been responsible for some modernisation of the Army, particularly its antiquated artillery arm, but it was still largely dependent on obsolete equipment, guided by outdated tactics and hamstrung by tensions (and language barriers) between its component nationalities.  Conrad nevertheless expected this Army to knock out Serbia at a stroke, redeploy a thousand kilometres to the northeast and invade Galicia before the Russians were ready.

In fact, Serbia held firm against tactically naive Austrian attacks in August, while Russia took nothing like the expected six weeks to bring troops to the front.  Conrad reacted by halting reinforcements en route for Serbia and sending them to Galicia instead, an idea based on a fantastically optimistic view of the Imperial railway system, which was largely single-tracked and collapsed into utter chaos trying to turn all the trains around.

With half the invasion force and much of its equipment stranded on the railways, and available units still in the process of basic organisation, Conrad launched the attack into Galicia anyway.  Committed to offensives at every opportunity but never remotely fit to carry them out, the invasion quickly disintegrated in the face of Russian counter-pressure and had been driven back into the Carpathian Mountains by the time Conrad called an official halt on 11 September.

Meanwhile, Austro-Hungarian forces in the south were launching a second invasion of Serbia, but simple frontal attacks on strong defensive positions met the same fate as before, this time at the River Drina.  That invasion was suspended on 15 September, leaving Conrad’s grand scheme in tatters and Vienna saddled with expensive, dangerous stalemate on two fronts.

Close to the royal family and with no credible rival among an anaemic officer corps, Conrad held onto his job and went right on launching his troops into hopelessly optimistic offensives against Russia, Serbia and Italy for the next two years, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives in pursuit of a crushing, decisive victory that never came.  His influence waned in the second half of 1916 as Austro-Hungarian command effectively passed under German control, and the new emperor, Karl, eventually dismissed him in March 1917.

The importance of Austria-Hungary in 1914 is largely overlooked by heritage commemoration, not least because the Empire had ceased to exist by the time the War ended and escaped the contemporary bad press heaped upon Germany.  This tends to let Conrad off posterity’s hook, but amid all the exposure of Prussian militarism his disastrous contributions to the bloodletting shouldn’t be forgotten.  While the British leadership went reluctantly into battle, the French righteously and the Russian blindly, while even the Kaiser abandoned peace with dread in his heart, Conrad’s Austria-Hungary marched greedily to war and sought advantage in its extension across Europe.

 

17 AUGUST, 1914:  Eastern Front (part one)

A hundred years ago today, German and Russian forces fought the first engagement of the War on the Eastern Front.  The fight took place at Stallupönen, a German village near the frontier between the two empires.  It wasn’t much of a battle, an unauthorised attack by a small portion of the regionally-based German army against the southern flank of an invading Russian army that forced a division (about 10,000 men) of Russian troops to retreat and took some 3,000 prisoners – but it was the start of a long and vastly important campaign that changed the world, changed the War and is almost completely forgotten by the heritage version as seen from the West.

I’ll be checking into the Eastern Front on a regular basis during the next few years, but for now here’s the start-up picture of a theatre of war that raged for more than four years and ultimately stretched all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Given that an alliance dating back to 1892 committed Russia to fighting in support of France, and that Germany was tied to Austria-Hungary by defensive alliance, a glance at a basic map of Europe in 1914 makes the opening battle lines fairly clear.  I’ve pinched the one below from the net, and I’ll be glad to remove it if anyone minds.

Europe1914

The Russian and German Empires faced each other along the borders of East Prussia to the north.  Austria-Hungary lined up along a disputed frontier with Russia further south, across the then Russian (now Ukrainian) province of Galicia, and all three empires were clustered hungrily round Poland, then ruled by Russia as a semi-autonomous and very turbulent province.  Still further south, the independent kingdoms of Romania and Bulgaria remained neutral for now, but both were looking to expand and both would enter the fighting once they’d juggled inducements from both sides and decided which represented the man chance.

All three main protagonists had plans in place for the outbreak of war.  Germany had left an army on its eastern frontier as part of the wider Schlieffen Plan, expecting to have beaten France and sent reinforcements during the anticipated six-week delay while Russian forces got organised.  Austria-Hungary’s battle plan defied both logistical realities (like most plans conjured up in Vienna) and the demands of war against Serbia on its southern frontiers to call for an immediate invasion of Galicia.  The latest of many Russian plans, known as Plan 19, was equally ambitious and smacked of autocratic fantasy.  Originally conceived as a simple, massed attack against the relatively small German force defending East Prussia (the eastern spur of Germany stretching up to what became the Lithuanian border), it was repeatedly doctored to satisfy squabbling court factions until it encompassed a smaller attack on East Prussia, a major attack on Austro-Hungarian lines in Galicia and the maintenance of strongly defended fortresses inside the frontiers.

Nothing went according to plan for any of them.

From a German viewpoint, the big surprise was that two Russian armies invaded East Prussia as early as 15 August.  They didn’t get far, not least because although Russia possessed hordes of troops – perhaps 25 million men of military age to call upon – and had performed miracles to get men to battle so quickly, its retarded industrial condition meant that uniforms and equipment were an altogether different matter.  The preliminary battle at Stallupönen set a pattern of well-equipped and well-trained German forces routing their more numerous opponents, but that didn’t prevent a certain amount of initial panic in Berlin at this unexpectedly early development.  Reinforcements under the newly paired team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff were diverted from the west to meet the situation, a move that had momentous consequences for the Western Front and opened floodgates to a campaign that would absorb more and more German attention and resources during the next four years.  A comprehensive German victory against superior numbers at Tannenberg on 26 August then forced the Russians to fall back and reinforce, bringing the invasion to an end.

Russian attacks in Galicia took longer to get going but met greater success against 10 shambolic Austro-Hungarian forces that were neither up to strength nor ready for operations, but which were carrying out their own planned invasion anyway.  The Austrians won the first skirmish, and forced the Russians back across their frontier when the two armies, each about half a million strong, collided in late August along a line centred on the small (now Ukrainian) town of Komarov.  Austrian optimism, never remotely justified by the performance of its armies in 1914, brought immediate attempts to push further east, but they collapsed against defensive positions and turned into a full-scale retreat, first to the city of Lvov and then into the sanctuary of the Carpathian Mountains.

As autumn began, the Germans were preparing an advance against the Russians in the north while the Russians planned an attack into the Carpathians, but deteriorating weather and the strength of defensive positions brought temporary stalemate to both fronts, and for the rest of the year all three empires focused their campaigns on the cherry in the middle, Poland.

That was just an outline sketch of the opening phase of the War on the Eastern Front.  Much, much more was to come.  For long periods, the Front achieved its own forms of gruesome stagnation, sometimes locked into trench warfare around strong defensive positions, sometimes involving huge advances by either side that moved the lines hundreds of miles across vast wildernesses without inflicting any sort of knockout blow.  Like the Western Front, the Eastern Front would see strategists and field commanders struggling and failing to find ways of making offensive land warfare actually work, and losing millions of lives in the process.

The total numbers killed in the theatre defy accurate calculation – Russian figures were often guesses and Austrian records were lost when its empire collapsed, to name just two of the problems faced by historians – but estimates of military deaths start above three million, and in most of the regions involved nobody bothered counting civilian deaths after about 1915.  Even by the standards we understand from the Western Front, fighting conditions were unspeakably horrible, with whole units freezing to death overnight amid desperate shortages of basic equipment and medicines, especially on the Russian side but also among multiracial Austro-Hungarian forces.

Unlike the Western Front, the War in the east did have immediate and long-lasting effects on the state of the world at large.  Russian involvement ended with the collapse of the regime to Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution; Austria-Hungary’s unproductive effort drained and eventually helped destroy its empire; Germany filled the void, took control over great swathes of territory, and then propelled its overall war effort towards disaster by attempting to administer them and exploit their economies.  And although a host of newly independent states sprang into existence all across the theatre in the War’s aftermath, many of them still faced prolonged struggles for survival as revolutions and civil wars raged across the region.  One way or another every part of the Eastern Front remained at war until the 1920s.

Even slammed together in a few paragraphs the Eastern Front makes quite a story, worth remembering as a human tragedy in itself and because it gave birth to so much of modern Europe.  You won’t hear much about it from the heritage industries in the West, and that’s a shame, because attempting to tell the story of the First World War without it can only be poppycock.